Manic mum rocked my world
Gary Farrow talks about his enduring friendship with the late mother of a founding member of Manic Street Preachers, the band that provided his life’s soundtrack.
Standing in bustling Cardiff Railway Station I couldn’t believe what an adventure I was on.
It was 2015, and I was finally meeting Irene Jones. We were pen friends – avidly sending letters, cards and gifts back and forth between New Zealand and Wales for years. That day, I was finally going to meet her.
To understand this friendship, understand my university days.
My daily soundtrack was the Manic Street Preachers. I wanted to become a political journalist and lyrics from the politically-charged band resonated.
For the uninitiated, the Manics released their first album in 1991. They were politically outspoken, sharing in their listeners’ existential struggles with culture, alienation, boredom and despair. I bought every one of their albums, and amassed as many singles as possible – well over 50 CDs – all the while dreaming of seeing them live. The Manics ended up playing in Melbourne days after my last-ever politics exam. It was 2010.
It was at that show my political education came full circle, as the band played hits like A Design for Life, Motorcycle Emptiness and Your Love Alone is Not Enough. The next day I befriended a woman named Sarah Coady, another Kiwi who had flown over especially. We recognised each other from the show – both elated, but exhausted.
We met up again in 2013, at the Manics’ only New Zealand show.
Leading up to the concert, bFM, Auckland’s alternative radio station where I volunteered, gave me a face-to-face interview with Nick Jones of the Manics, known by the stage name Nicky Wire. As the bass player and primary lyricist for the band, he was responsible for the political commentary in their music that had made such an impression on me.
I told him I used to regard myself as a Marxist when I began listening to them at 17. At two metres-plus tall, he grinned down at me and said: ‘‘That’s how the best of us start.’’
After the the Manics left the country, something peculiar happened. Sarah received a Facebook message from a woman claiming to be Irene Jones, Nick’s mum. Sceptical, Sarah and I responded, then unaware that Irene had a habit of messaging her son’s fans. Eventually, Irene asked for our postal addresses.
Soon we received envelopes from Wales, covered in cute stickers. They contained photos of the Manics signed by all the band members, and letters from Irene. And I received something particularly special – a greeting card from Nicky Wire.
He wrote that it was a privilege to meet me and thanked me for supporting the band.
Now I knew I was definitely connected to my hero’s mum. An unlikely but beautiful friendship formed. Irene and I corresponded for years, sending Facebook messages and letters, mostly writing about things that had nothing to do with the Manics. From the changing of the seasons, to stories of our families and pets, and the political happenings in one another’s countries.
And then, a meeting. In 2015, the Manics were touring the UK for the 21st anniversary of arguably their
She had a huge, warm smile, just like Nick. She gave me a big hug and rubbed my cold hands.
greatest album, The Holy Bible.
I decided to go to their Cardiff Castle concert in Wales. Irene invited me over for a cup of tea.
Which brings us to Cardiff station, where I stood, waiting for a train that would bring me to Irene’s home. Following Irene’s directions I caught a train, a bus and a taxi; and was eventually welcomed into the Jones’ home by her husband Allen, and their dog Megan.
And then Irene came around the corner.
‘‘Welcome, Gary! Welcome!’’ She had a huge, warm smile, just like Nick. She gave me a big hug and rubbed my cold hands.
Over four cups of coffee and three rounds of sandwiches Irene, Allen and I talked for hours. I was a radio DJ in my 20s, they were retired and nearing their 80s. We got on like a house on fire.
We took selfies, and then the time was gone. Allen rarely drove, but nonetheless got the car out especially to drive me, with Irene and Megan sitting in the back, to the bus station. Irene boarded the bus with me to ensure it was going to Ystrad Mynach.
She took my hands in hers again and kissed them, before stepping off the bus and blowing kisses as the doors closed. We kept in touch.
When I moved to Hamilton last year, she was the first person to send international mail. Calling me ‘‘wonderboy’’ – a reference to my social work and journalism – she enclosed a fridge magnet, a love heart carved out of wood, inscribed with the message, ‘‘Happiness is having Welsh friends’’.
So I was deeply saddened when I heard last week Irene had passed away after a long battle with leukemia. She was 80. I was aware she was sick but her death came as a shock.
With her son’s success, she’d carved out her own path, raising money for charity, and advocating for social causes. She even made the news, spearheading a campaign to try to save woodland from bulldozers.
I like to think she saw something in me that she saw in her sons – politically charged writers who liked to help others.
Irene repeatedly called me her hero, her wonderboy.
I call her a blessing. And she was – to everyone she knew.
Above, Gary Farrow, centre, with Manic Street Preachers members Nicky Wire, left, and James Dean Bradfield in 2015. Right, with Wire’s mother, Irene Jones.